Morning came. The upside of it was that the sunlight was lessened down in the basement. I rubbed at the side of my head, feeling the incipient headache. I reached out before remembering I hadn’t poured out a bottle of water for myself the night before. I despaired momentarily until my eyes focused enough to find that there was, indeed, a large jug by the bed. I grabbed it gratefully, drank, guzzled the better part of a gallon. I let out a sigh of deep and abiding relief, and leaned back in the downstairs bed.
That had been surprisingly kind of Jack to help me out like that. She was making a real effort, it seemed, to be kind and helpful. Maybe there was some real hope for her.
“Atina!” she yelled, throwing open the door.
As my eardrums rang, and my skull throbbed with rage, I decided that no, you couldn’t change what you were, and clearly, Jack was still a killer through and through, and had simply graduated to more refined methods, like using my hangover to kill me and finishing me off with her voice, seemingly projected through a loudspeaker. “God help me, Jack, what?” I asked, hands pressed against the sides of my skull. Whether I was trying to keep the shattered remnants of my cranium together, or grind them together until the feeling went away, I wasn’t sure.
“Come on! You need to get up! You got a call! They need you! Right away! It’s an emergency!”
My mind kicked into overdrive. My heart pounded. I grabbed the spare dress from the wardrobe I’d moved into the basement not long ago, and pulled it on, with only the briefest combing of my fingers through my hair. I looked like a frightful mess, I knew, but it’d have to do. I raced up the stairs.
“Happy Birthday, Atina!” shouted everyone, literally everyone, that I cared about. Li Fang Fen was there, with the guy she’d brought to town looking nervous as he stood a few steps behind her. Polly and Alfred. Jenny. Lady Ann Willing. My fucking parents were there, and thank god that Lady Ann Willing was not displaying her full supernatural mien. I stared, hung over, my head spinning a little bit.
“Whose idea was this?” I asked, sharply.
“Roy called me,” said Li Fang Fen. “He said you needed a good party to celebrate your birthday.”
“Same for us,” said Alfred, and he smiled. “We’re heading out to Europe tomorrow night, but we had time to celebrate your birth.”
“Oi can’t believe you didn’t remind me,” said Polly, pouting, and working her fake accent like a mule. “You know Oi’ve got no head for dates.”
“Come on. We set everything up,” said Jenny, smiling at me. There was a wide selection of food, drinks, decorations. I stared blankly.
“Where did you guys find the time to get all of this-”
“That,” said a soft voice, right behind me, “Was my doing.”
I spun and barely avoided decking the Earlen Grafsdottir of Endicott, which would have probably violated the rules of hospitality. She smiled sharply. “This counts as one of the favors.”
“It absolutely does not, mother, because I was the one who paid for it,” said Eric Grafson, stepping around a corner, carrying a chafing dish, his friends following. He smiled. “Miss LeRoux. You are a faithless, honorless, and ever-scheming soul. You’re also someone I think I could learn to trust. Happy Birthday.”
“The boy has learned quite a bit,” said the Earlen, sourly. “Among other things, he has learned how to use promises like a weapon against me. But at least that is better than them being used against him.” She sighed, and offered me a quick, weary smile. “I apologize if you have found me difficult.” Then she turned and walked towards the door, leaving Eric to coordinate the rest.
“Sweetie.” My mom stepped up, and put her arms around me, my father doing the same a moment later. They were getting older, which I’d certainly known for a while, but both of them looked well. I didn’t usually introduce them to people. “It’s so good to see you! How long has it been?”
“A couple of months, mom.”
“You know, if you ever want to move back in with us, you’re welcome.”
“I know, mom.” I smiled. It was the same conversation we always had. Some people might have felt hemmed in by it. For me, it was a rare reminder that I had somewhere I belonged. It almost brought tears to my eyes. “I’m sorry I don’t visit you more.”
“Oh, honey. I know you’re busy here, and you do wonderful work! So, these are the people you work with?”
My father frowned. “Did that woman have a tail?”
“Oh, come on,” my mother said. “You need to be more open minded.”
“I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question,” my father said, but he was smiling as he did. “Happy birthday, honey. Me and your mom got you this.” He held out a large box. I noticed a large section of boxes were stacked in one corner. My chest ached a little bit. The sign of all the ways people loved and cared about me. That was something special.
“Are you doing alright?” Li Fang Fen asked, stepping close to me, smiling warmly at my parents, and then at me. “Where is Roy?”
“Yes, I’ve been looking forward to meeting him!” said my mom.
“I, ah. I don’t think he’s going to be here. I think this was his way of saying goodbye,” I murmured softly. “But it’s okay. This was incredibly sweet of him. He really is a pretty kind-hearted guy.” I wondered whether that was a lie, a half-truth, or just a hope.
“If you say so, honey, but I don’t think this is what a guy would do if he was breaking up with you,” said dad. “God knows that my breakups were usually a little more-”
“Your breakups were all done while you were in a haze of marijuana,” said my mom, and we all grinned, in the way that only people who are too close for teasing to hurt can.
In my worst moments, there had been nothing that had revitalized me quite like other people depending on me. When I was on my own, I collapsed. I was like a slanted wall. Without something leaning on me, without the weight of another pressing me down, setting my feet, I was prone to falling apart. Life without others was miserable for me. So I smiled brightly. I set my feet, and worked to become the perfect birthday girl. I didn’t think about Roy’s disappearing in the night or anything that might make me a drag.
It was one of my better birthdays. Might even have been the best birthday party I’d had since I started understanding the world enough to be disappointed by it. My birthdays had always been right when the school year was starting, when everyone was in flux, and no one had time to relax. Even after I’d left school, I’d never been much to make a fuss about my birthday, and no one else had been, either. But having someone else push it had everyone trying harder. And it was amazing how much that cheered me up.
Li Fang Fen introduced me to her new male friend from the city, whose name I forgot a second and third time over the course of the afternoon. The Jiang-shi had bought me a pair of high heels, which looked utterly impractical, and were thus the perfect gift; something I would never buy for myself, and were nevertheless wonderful and memory-provoking. Polly and Alfred approached me after I opened that gift.
“We don’t have your birthday present yet,” said Alfred, “but I have a line on something. I think you’ll appreciate it. A codex of rare swords, kept by an ancient Fae swordsmith. He had contacts and knowledge of all parts of the world, and the techniques used in many lands. I hope that if I can have a copy sketched for you, it may help you to identify Jack Knife.”
“Thank you, Alfred.” I smiled. “And you, Polly. It’s nice to see the two of you together again.”
They demurred pleasantly, and slipped away, while my parents approached. My mom smiled. “Honey. I remember your bike got messed up around last winter, and you took that spill.” She held up the box, and I opened it. A bike helmet sat within. “We put all that money into that law school education, we’d hate to see you lose it in an accident.”
My dad nodded, and then stepped around the corner with a new bicycle. I stared. “We also wanted to get you a new one.”
It wasn’t as though I couldn’t buy myself a new bicycle. I’d been fully capable of that for years. I could’ve bought a new bike any time since the old one had been wrecked. It was the fact that they had done it for me. That they had gone to the trouble. That was what felt good. When someone else was willing to help you keep your life together. I didn’t depend on it, but I definitely appreciated it.
Jenny’s gift was a smartphone. “In case you ever, ever find yourself in trouble again,” she said, nodding her head firmly. “I want to make sure you can contact us as quickly as possible. It’s quite resilient, and there’s a satellite phone function. Just to be sure.” She looked a bit embarrassed. “I thought of it while I was out there on the salt flats.”
“I’m… going to need to hear that story someday.”
“For certain. And it is a very good one.” She smiled. “Lots of heroes, monsters, and ambiguity. You’d love that kind of story.”
“Oh, be fair, you always love to subvert expectations.” She smiled. “Happy birthday, Atina. I got to see another one because of you. I am supremely grateful you were born.”
“So am I,” said Li Fang Fen, grinning, as she squeezed my shoulder.
“I think it’d go without saying for us,” said my father, and he smiled, and for a moment, he wasn’t an old man, hunched by age. He was the face I’d seen as a child, the same man who’d raised me, who’d taken care of me for so long.
I didn’t deserve anything that I had, but that just meant I’d have to make up for it.
As the day wound down, I was approached by Harriet and Melody. Melody looked nervous and slightly twitchy, but she smiled brightly at me as Harriet approached. ‘Uh, hey.” The black goth girl smiled. “I wanted to thank you for introducing me to Melody. She’s really cool. So, uh.” She nodded her head. “Eric and Tammy wanted to talk to you. They’re just outside.”
“Ah, jeez.” I steeled myself. Getting ready for whatever fresh problem this would be. “And you two play safe, okay? Talk with Michael before you make any pacts, and don’t start any cults.” I wagged my finger sternly at them, and Harriet laughed. “God, I’d make a terrible mother. Can’t even keep kids away from demons.”
I stepped out through the front door. Tammy and Eric were standing side by side, a bit defiant, but also nervous. Like kids waiting for their mom to see the report card, but with a ready excuse.
“Well, let’s hear it,” I said, which seemed to break their momentum somewhat. “You went behind my back, I’m sure, to make some new vow, Eric. I’m even sort of happy about that, because it means you aren’t going to break up because of me, which would fucking suck. I’ve got enough on my conscience as it is.”
“Not yet,” said Eric. “You were right about the promises, at least, I think. I do need to consider them carefully. To be mindful about how I use my word. Otherwise it doesn’t mean anything, which is worse, I think, than to be harmed by the promises I make.” He coughed. The boy was obviously nervous, and was also holding a piece of paper. He stepped forward, and placed it in my hand. “I wanted to know what you think of this.”
I opened the scrap of paper. I read what was written on it. I laughed. “This would never hold up in court, you know.” I smiled. “I like it. What the hell, go for it.”
Eric turned to Tammy, and took her hands. “I promise to love you, Tammy. For as long as you love me.”
She smiled, and turned her hands around, their fingers interlacing. “I promise to love you, Eric. For as long as you love me.”
It meant nothing. Tammy was a human, and her word wasn’t binding. It never would be. She could break it with a thought. It was vague to the point of uselessness. It was useless as a contract. It might even be considered broken already.
As a vow, a way for two people to always keep each other in mind, a way to cement a relationship, it was perfect. It was a self-sustaining thing, something to remind them, when times were bad, why they were in it. It didn’t mean anything, so it meant everything. I smiled softly. Then Tammy let out a soft, sharp gasp.
The Susquehanna was not quite visible from my home, because of the thick forest between the banks and the street. But I knew it was there. And as I watched, thousands of fireflies were rising from those trees. Their lights blinked intermittently, flashes of iridescent green. I stared, my mouth open, as they rose in a great dance, fluttering through the air. Like Christmas lights. Like twinkling stars. Like fireflies living and dying in a space of a few weeks, their beauty so intense because of its transience.
And illuminated by the light, dressed casually, wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, as though he wasn’t some terrible creature from the deep mists of mankind’s history, as though he wasn’t the embodiment of chaos and terror, as though he was not the First and the Last Dragon. And the only thing belying that exterior were the fireflies that flew around him.
“I thought firefly season was over by now,” said Tammy, softly, frowning. She turned her head towards me. “What is he?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” I said, and gave the two of them a quick smile. “I think you should go inside. I think I need to have a long talk.”
“Ah.” Eric reached down, into the duffelbag, and took out a small plastic jar, filled with some strange, murky gray fluid. “My gift to you. A jar of Kava. Shake it well, and take a sip. It’ll numb your tongue, and tastes awful, but it helps to sedate you and make you more gregarious. Good for conversation.” He solemnly placed it in my hands. I looked down at the jar, shook it, and watched as the thick layer of sediment on the bottom vanished. “Much better for you than alcohol.”
I nodded, and turned to walk down the street. I heard my front door open and close as the two of them returned to the room. Roy stood there, watching me, as I approached. I waved a hand towards the fireflies. “You know, just because you’re you, doesn’t mean you get to do this. I missed the fireflies. If they came around whenever I wanted them to, they wouldn’t be special. They’re beautiful because I miss them. You’re not allowed to just make the world dance to your whims.”
“That is the essence of what I am.” He smiled. “The fireflies swarm when the time is right. The time is right when the weather is right. The weather is right when this universe says it is right. And that is within my control.”
“You’re not God, Roy.”
“No. But I am the next best thing.” He crossed his arms, and tilted his head. “You thought I would leave you?”
“After what I said, after…” I was quiet for a moment. “You want to survive.”
“Yes. More than almost anything.”
“Then why stay with me?”
“Because if there is anyone I trust in this world to save me from my dark fate, if there is any being in this world who can plant their feet in the path of what is to come, it is you. You cling to me with a ferocious desire, a need and a hunger that is beyond both reason and sanity. How can I not love a woman whose hunger, whose vicious desire, can so match my own?” He smiled. “The fireflies will swarm for a brief time, living and dying and flaring, and then the rains will come. And they may die. But they will not be forgotten. I may die, though I will bet everything I have against that. But you will never, ever forget me.” His smile grew wider, more feral. “It is a violence I do to you, a scar on your soul, the hook that is called love; after all, turnabout is fair play. And now, I think I should go.”
“Like hell.” I held out the jar. “Kava.”
“I am familiar with it.” He raised an eyebrow. “No alcohol?”
“Not tonight.” I shook the bottle, and took a quick swig of it. I blanched, and gagged for a moment. That was extremely fucking bitter, and the gritty taste made it rather like drinking watery mud. My tongue started to go slightly numb and tingly. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Really? That’s the question you asked me?” He raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were different.”
“We can’t be gods and heroes and monsters all the time. Favorite color, Roy.”
He chuckled. “I perceive the world in ways you couldn’t imagine. The wavelengths of light hold as much meaning to me as the heartbeats of mice do to you.” He paused for a moment, and ran his fingers through my hair slowly, separating the strands in a way that made my heart beat quicker. “And yet, I always seemed to have a weakness for red.”
“Not much red in my hair,” I murmured softly.
“Maybe not to others. But I can see it. Burning like the embers at the hearts of dead stars, waiting someday to be resurrected. The ash and the tinder are both a part of the fire. It is the memory of fire, and as long as a thing is not forgotten, it can return.” He took the jug, and took a long, firm swig. Then he held it out to me, condensation dripping down the sides from the cold kava. “Have you ever slept with another man?”
“Yes, Roy,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“I don’t simply ask out of jealousy.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t want to be overly enthusiastic and hurt you without meaning to while giving you your birthday present.”
I took another sip, and smirked. “You think sex with you is good enough to qualify as a birthday present?”
He took the jar from me, and smiled. “Yes.” He took another sip. “Do you think that I will ever, ever let you go without a fight that would shake the foundation and the firmament?”
“No,” I said, and smiled. I took the jar, and took another sip. It was almost empty, now. “Do you think I’d ever let you go, period?”
He laughed, and took the jar, polishing it off. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and grinned. “Not a chance. There is no one better for either of us.” He nodded towards the house. “Shall we?”
“Yes.” I smiled, and took his arm. I might as well introduce him to everyone.
The rain began to pound down later that night as everyone had left except for Roy, and the two of us settled down together in my bed. I didn’t get much sleep, but that was okay; it was Thursday, and tomorrow was my birthday, and I knew I was loved. It didn’t have to happen at exactly the right time, because everyone had showed me they cared. Roy in particular. He was fearsome and frightening and beyond human understanding, but he loved me, and I loved him, and I wasn’t going to let anything take him away from me. I would still be wary, but I could love him despite that.
The stories that stand out to people tend to be the ones that are full of twists, turns, death, and pain. The novels people write are full of ennui and longing and suffering and way more unhappy endings than they have any right to. This is because novels are designed to keep people on the edge of their seats, to keep them reading, and to keep them wanting more, and cliffhangers are far more effective and scarring than a quiet dinner with friends or silly little moments or awkward questions or embarrassingly good sex.
But those are the little things that make up our stories. The moments that keep us going through the pain and the suffering and the uncertainty and the losses. They’re what make life worth living.
And yes, it was good enough to qualify as a birthday present.